Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Response to a Christian About the Biblical Story of Ishmael and Isaac


Ishmael and Isaac in the Bible: Response to a Christian's Objections

In the article "The Biblical Story of Ishmael and Isaac: An Analysis and Comparison to the Islamic Narrative", we discussed the inconsistencies and contradictions in the story of Ishmael and Isaac as found in the Bible.  This article was also posted on the IslamiCity Discussion Forum, where one of the Christian members offered a response to the assertions we raised.  In this brief follow-up article, we will respond to the arguments raised by this particular individual.[1]

           The Christian individual made the following initial claim regarding Ishmael:

 "...you insist that Ishmael was not a teenager when indeed he was although not strong as one and needed to be carried. In fact, they both gave out according to the account." 

This claim is based on absolutely no evidence.  We noted in the original article that the Jewish commentator Rashi claimed that Ishmael had to be carried by his mother because he had been afflicted with a curse from Sarah.  Obviously, such a claim was not based on any evidence and was clearly an attempt to explain why poor Hagar was carrying her son who was supposed to be 16-years old.[2]  The Jewish commentators had to figure out why the Bible was treating Ishmael like a helpless child instead of an able-bodied teenager.  Our esteemed Christian detractor is resorting to the same tactics by making hollow assertions with no supporting evidence.  Can he tell us how far Hagar went while carrying her son before she finally “gave out”?  Can he show us any example prior to the exile into the desert where Ishmael was “not strong and needed to be carried”?     

           Furthermore, the argument that Ishmael was "not strong" is clearly refuted by the fact that the Bible claims that he went on to live in the desert and become an archer.  The desert is not a very hospitable place to live, especially for a teenager who was "not strong and needed to be carried" by his mother.  How did Ishmael manage to survive in one of the most unforgiving places on earth in spite of his weakness?  

Next, the Christian questioned our assertion that the Hebrew word "hay-ye-led" referred to a child:

"But, the Hebrew word ye′ledh here rendered “child” also means “young man” and is so translated at Genesis 4:23."

The word used in Genesis 4:23 is "we-ye-led", not "hay-ye-led".  It is not the same word used in Genesis 21:14, in which Ishmael is referred to as a “boy”.   In the original article, we also provided other examples of the use of “hay-ye-led” from which it is clear that the word referred to a very young child, or even an infant, as in the cases of both Isaac and Moses.

            The Christian then appealed to another Biblical verse:

“It was said of the youth Joseph (17 at the time) that he was sold into slavery over Reuben’s protest, “Do not sin against the child [bai·ye′ledh].”  Lamech likewise spoke of “a young man [ye′ledh]” as having wounded him at Genesis 42:22.

The word used is “bay-ye-led” so it is again the wrong word.  A better example would be Genesis 37:30 in which the word “hay-ye-led” is actually used:

He [Reuben] went back to his brothers and said, “The boy [hay-ye-led] isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”[3]

This verse is in reference to Joseph.  While it is true that Joseph was 17 years old at the time (Genesis 37:2), the use of the word “hay-ye-led” is not due to his age but to something else.  In the Jewish translation, Genesis 37:2 states:

These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old, being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad, [and was] with the sons of Bilhah and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought evil tales about them to their father.[4]

According to Rashi, the phrase “and he was a lad” meant that:

He behaved childishly, fixing his hair and touching up his eyes so that he would appear handsome. [From Gen. Rabbah 84:7][5]

Another possible explanation for why Reuben referred to Joseph as “hay-ye-led” (despite the fact that the latter was clearly too old to be called as such) was offered by John Gill in his well-known commentary:

“…he calls him a child, though seventeen years of age, because the youngest brother but one, and he himself was the eldest, and also because of his tender concern for him…”[6]

This further proves that the word “hay-ye-led” specifically means “child”.  Genesis 37:30 is the only other place (besides Genesis 21:8, 21:14 and 21:15) where the word “hay-ye-led” is used (out of 26 total occurrences[7]) in reference to a teenager.  Yet we can see that in the case of Joseph, it was used not to refer to his age but to his childish behavior (according to Rashi) or because of Reuben’s status as the eldest brother (according to Gill).  If it was used for some other reason, then it would only create another contradiction (as with its use in Genesis 21 to refer to the 16-year old Ishmael), since a 17-year old would not be referred to as “hay-ye-led”, a word which was only used when in reference to a young child.      

            Next, the Christian critic attempted to explain why the Bible referred to Isaac as Abraham’s only son even though Ishmael was the first-born and was also his son.  He claimed:

So, Isaac was indeed born and was the primary attention of Abraham’s sacrifice that Muslims vehemently tries [sic] to deny, not Hagar [sic]. He was the ‘only son’ of Sarah as was promised her when Hagar was dismissed. Genesis 17:16, 19, 21   I will bless her and also give you a son by her; I will bless her and she will become nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 19 To this God said: “Your wife Sarah will definitely bear you a son, and you must name him Isaac. And I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant to his offspring after him. 21 However, I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this appointed time next year.”

Here we see that our Christian friend did not explain anything but instead again resorted to unsupported assertions.  In our article, it was never denied that the Bible stated that God would establish His covenant with Isaac.  The question was why it referred to Isaac as Abraham’s “only” son when Ishmael was also his son.  The Christian did not answer this question.  Establishing a covenant with Isaac and not with Ishmael does nothing to refute the clear fact that Ishmael was also Abraham’s son.  We pointed out in the article that God clearly referred to Ishmael as Abraham’s son (or offspring) in Genesis 21:13, so why would He then refer to Isaac as the “only” son later on?  It is a contradiction, plain and simple. 
And Allah knows best!


[1] The Christian critic also disapproved of our article “The History of the Bible and the Quran”.  A separate response will be made to those criticisms.

[2] It certainly would have been a sight to see Hagar carrying her teenaged son across the desert before finally giving in to fatigue!  Of course, who can blame her for eventually giving up?!

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